Saturday, July 28, 2018

Alejo Carpentier, The Kingdom of This World (1947)

Carpentier (1904-1980), in spite of being born in Switzerland to a French father and Russian mother, grew up in Cuba, wrote in Spanish, and always considered himself a Cuban writer. And this book, in particular, is considered extremely notable--an ur-Latin-American novel (I'd thought that Pedro Paramo held that role, but perhaps this one is ur-er). There's a pretty striking blurb from Ilan Stavans: "It all starts in these pages: magical realism and its discontents, the illustrious tradition of modern Latin American novels, and maybe even the Hispanic world as we know it today. Without The Kingdom of This World there would be no Juan Rulfo, Julio Cortazar, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, or Mario Vargas Llosa." So...there you go.

This novel (some would call it a novella) takes place in Haiti before and after its independence, through the eyes--mostly--of a slave (later a former slave) named Ti Noël. It depicts the lives of the French overseers and slaves, and later of Henri Christophe, who, as Haiti's first king, reproduced the brutality and cruelty of the French. Compared to Garcia Marquez (say) the magical element is understated, but the narrative is suffused with myth and voodoo ritual.

The thing that immediately impresses you about this is how much Carpentier is able to fit into a hundred thirty pages. The book is short, but it nonetheless feels very sweeping. It is riveting stuff, as a story of Haiti in particular and the human condition in general. To be honest, he was a bit of an afterthought to me: I sort of thought, okay, whatever, I'll read this and be done. But now, I think I'm going to have to read more of his stuff, just on accounta he's friggin' badass. This, I think, is the kind of book that should be taught in high schools. Stop boring kids with The Scarlet Letter! Give them something like this, that'll put meat on their bones!


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